The Gospel in the Affluent East

~ The Case of Singapore ~

by Kin Lam (



Singapore is an 100%-urbanized city state with three million population. When Singapore was first put onto the world map in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles, hardly anyone could imagine its future development in the years to come. The tiny little island at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, with less than 650 square kilometers of land and practically no natural resources, has over the years emerged to be one of the most vibrant economies of the world. According to a research institution in Taiwan, by the year 2020, Singapore will become the world's richest nation (in terms of GNP per capita), surpassing Switzerland and Japan. Behind this economic miracle are a stable, prudent and efficient government, which holds vastly different political philosophy from its counterparts in the West, and three million dedicated workers.

In Singapore, one observes not only ethnic, but also religious diversity. While traditional Chinese religions such as Buddhism and Taoism still maintain stronghold among the Chinese, who represent three quarters of the population, Christianity has experienced rapid growth since World War II especially among the younger, English-educated generation. As a result, Singapore has emerged to be a strong a candidate as the Antioch of Asia. Indeed, given its strategic location, its convenient access to neighboring (non-Christian) countries, availability of training facilities, and economic affluence, Singapore has every potential to become an ideal mission base in Asia.

However, the situation may not be as optimistic as some have believed. Besides the challenges of reaching the people within and afar, there lies a hidden crisis among the Christians in Singapore. For once, the affluence, resulting from economic success, has shown its profound influence on the Christian church. While the society is being Christianized, Christianity in Singapore is under the serious threat of being secularized. In other words, a different gospel is quietly sneaking into the church.

The aim of this paper is to trace the development of this new brand of Christianity, investigate the background and factors leading to its formation, expose its fallacies and thus defend the Christian faith. We will first survey the Singapore society as a whole, and then go deeper to discuss the Christian culture. Reference materials, including some of my first-hand experience with the Christians in Singapore, will cover the political, sociological, and theological aspects.


Singapore Society: A Holistic View

2.1        Political System

Since its independence in 1965, Singapore has been under the governing of a "virtually unchallenged ruling party". According to sociologist John Clammer, Singapore's central political ideology, which adopts a quasi-Confucian approach, is built upon three key elements: (1) economic growth, (2) political stability and authority, and (3) definition of a distinct culture. In all three areas, the government maintains a paternalistic style. In other words, the government defines, directs and delivers. First of all, there is an extreme emphasis on economic development and maintaining leadership positions. This is most evident from the news reports on local newspapers and television, both of which are state-controlled. Meanwhile, political authority is established through a strict and efficient legal system. The direct and indirect involvement of government in almost every aspect of life, from community development to family planning, further reinforces its authority.

Apart from these, the government also monitors ethnic and religious issues closely. On one hand, the government encourages preservation of various ethnic cultures; on the other hand, strong emphasis is put on maintaining ethnic and religious harmony. The importance of harmony is reinforced regularly through the mass media and the wholly state-run educational system. The government's ultimate goal is to establish a unique culture and identity for a people that comes from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. The central message is one of unity, with the national interests above personal interests, as the motto of Singapore expresses vividly, "Society above individuals." To the government, the incorporation of all informal sectors (cultural, economic, political) into one single unified state is crucial for its survival in the competitive global economic scene.

2.2        Modern Social Culture

There are three main ethnic groups in Singapore: Chinese (77%), Malays (14%) and Indians (7%). Correspondingly, the official languages are: Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and English, the language of administration. Throughout its brief history, the government has been very successful in maintaining stability and harmony. In Singapore, one not only finds a stable political environment with economic affluence, but also encounters a society that is friendly and harmonious. The crime rate is one of the lowest in the world, and conflicts between ethnic and religious groups are rare, if any.

Interestingly, the government's quest for order has resulted in a relatively homogeneous group of citizens, despite diversity in culture and religion. In the language of sociology, there is "a relative absence of alternative versions of reality." The assertion of political influence on daily life of the people has a profound effect. Clammer, who spent years in Singapore teaching sociology, concludes that the people of Singapore are not only politically-repressed, but also culturally-repressed. My personal experience echoes Creamer's view. This lack of critical thinking, as we will see in later sections, have strong implications on the application of the gospel.

Meanwhile, though information inflow is regulated by the government, the society in general is still very much open to the influence of the West and their neighboring East. As the economy prospers, materialism gains more ground especially among the new generation. The demand for luxury goods has been consistently on the rise. A "good life" is no longer enough; people are talking more and more about "lifestyle" and the enjoyment of life. In reaction to this, the government endorses the notion of a "Singapore Dream" --- a symbol of security and comfort for this generation and the next. On one hand, the government initiates development and redevelopment of land to improve the already gracious living environment; on the other hand, they repeatedly stress the necessity to continue expanding economic ventures and upgrading technical and professional skills of the workforce.

In the public domain, this "Singapore Dream" has taken on a more down-to-earth interpretation. It can be summarized in the so-called "5Cs" --- Cash, Credit Cards, Car, Condominium, and Country Club Membership. It should be noticed that cars in Singapore can easily cost 400-500% more than that in the U.S.; and condominium, i.e. private housing, is substantially more expensive than public housing in which about 80% of the population live. This concept of "5Cs" is not only being discussed privately among the people, it is also a frequent topic on newspapers, magazines, television news reports and even television drama series. Thus, a "5Cs bachelor" will be seen as the ideal target for marriage; and a "5Cs family" will be seen as a model family. While most of the people are still incapable of achieving such status, "5Cs" is gradually becoming the life-goal of many Singaporeans. Along the way, the government has been playing a catalytic role, ensuring its citizens of the realization of such a dream, with the condition that they would work hard and contribute to the economic progress of the nation.

2.3        Religion in Singapore

In Singapore, traditional Chinese religions, a blend of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and ancestor worship, still commands over 50% of the population. Christians make up around 15% of the population, while another 15% are Muslims. Hindu and other folk religions constitute about 5%, and the rest of the population, another 15%, are non-religious.

The government's attitude towards religion is best illustrated in the following incident. In 1971, shortly after the general election, a Christian journalist from the Religious News Service was to be present at the official press conference. However, as soon as he arrived, he was kept out of the conference by Prime Minister's press secretary, who commented, "God had nothing to do with these elections." Since then, such attitude has not altered very much. (This should not surprise anyone as the then Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, is still acting as Senior Minister of Singapore.)

The common understanding about religion, though never stated explicitly by the government, is that religion is a matter of private belief rather than a subject of public discussion. It is something one has to keep to himself. Religious harmony is the ultimate virtue, and this must not be sacrificed in place of the propagation of any religion. Historically, the first immigrants to Singapore had "made their religious congregations a form of social organization." This, coupled with government's reinforcement, has resulted in religion being perceived as part of a culture. For instance, Islam is closely associated with the Malay community; Taoism and Buddhism, with strong flavors of Chinese folk religions, are seen as a part of the traditional Chinese culture. Christianity meanwhile is more commonly connected to the modern Western culture. Christianity is well accepted in Singapore because the nation has opened itself to the Western culture. Yet, with no exception, its existence is only appreciated when it does not intrude into or create conflicts with the more traditional cultures. Thus religion of any kind must be mindful of the cultural-religious harmony in its practice. This unspoken law has long become an "instinct" for those practicing religion.

Still, on top of all, there lies the notion of "national interest". Religious practices must not disturb harmony of the society, not because harmony itself is preferred to conflict, but because harmony is the interest of the state. This is the central message delivered by the secular government. No matter how important religion is to the people, it must always remain under the authority of the state. Religion in Singapore is purely instrumental. Religion is good as long as "it will promote certain desirable attitudes compatible with the sort of society that the government desires and that teaching of religion will itself lead to the appearance of desirable moral traits." The political agenda is laid bare on the table. There is no place for religious "fanatics" in this island state.

Looking into history, there have been incidents of the government prohibiting activities of certain religious groups. Apart from some politically-motivated religious activities, several reactions to the Christian movement are noteworthy. In 1974, in an attempt to avoid ethnic tensions, the government "advised" the Bible Society of Singapore to stop publishing gospel materials in Malay. More than a decade later, in 1988 and 1989, in view of the evangelistic efforts by the Protestants, key leaders of the country, including Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, openly criticized Christians' "insensitive evangelization" as a serious threat to racial harmony. Since then, the Religious Harmony Act, which sets boundaries for Christian evangelization, especially towards the Muslims, has been put in place.


Christianity in Singapore

3.1        Emergence of Christianity

The establishment of the Catholic Church in Singapore can be dated back to the founding of Singapore in 1819. As for the Protestant community, it originates with the London Missionary Society, whose first missionary arrived in 1820. The growth of Christianity was modest until the post-World War II period, which saw a rapid increase. Between 1950 and 1964, the Anglicans, the Methodists, the Presbyterians and the Brethren planted more than 100 new congregations. Subsequent establishment of Christian schools, at both primary and secondary levels, contributes both to the educational system as well as religious expansion.

Historically and socially speaking, there are several factors contributing to the surge of Christianity in Singapore. First of all, the expanding role of English since the independence of Singapore must not be overlooked. There is a high correlation between the English-educated and those who are Christians. We have mentioned earlier that religion in Singapore is often tagged to a certain culture. Christianity, being commonly associated with the modern Western culture, received a strong boost when the reception of Western culture was accelerated through government's endorsement of the English language. Another factor to note is that the growth of Christianity has mostly come in the expense of traditional Chinese religions. Statistics show that majority of the converts came from Buddhist, Taoist or ancestor-worshipping families. These Christian converts generally characterize traditional Chinese religions as "illogical", "unrealistic", "unconvincing", and "superstitious beliefs in a myriad of gods and spirits". On the opposite end, Christianity is perceived as a rational, modern religion that is systematic in its doctrines and relevant to one's life.

3.2        Some Distinct Features

In 2.3, we mentioned that the Christian population in Singapore is about 15%. However, this figure alone is inadequate in reflecting the true picture of Christian growth in Singapore. First of all, statistics indicate that the percentage of Christians over the whole population has almost doubled in the last decade. Coming into the 1990s, annual growth rate has been maintained at around 5%, with an even higher growth of 7% for the Protestants. Ethnically, close to 90% of the Christians are Chinese. Yet, majority of them are English-educated. In 1992, among the nearly 400 Protestant congregations, 270 (67.5%) were English-speaking, 100 (25%) were Chinese-speaking, and 20 (5%) were Indian-speaking.

More significantly, the Protestant Christians are substantially more well-off than the general population in terms education and occupation. A typical Christian in Singapore will be young, English-speaking, a graduate from university, holding a professional job, and very possibly a Chinese. Surveys have shown that although only 15% of the population are Christians, percentage among those completed high school is close to 30%, among university students is 41%, and among medical students is 73%. In addition, about one-third of the members of Parliament are Christian. As the old generation passes away and the new generation comes along, it is expected that the percentage of Christians in Singapore will continue to increase. One common vision among many Singaporean Christian leaders is to make Singapore 30% Christian by 2000.

3.3        Evangelistic Effort

In 1977, only 2% of the population in Singapore were Christians. Organized outreach and evangelism programs were rare among the churches. The blossoming of evangelistic efforts began with the aggressive ministry of Youth for Christ in the secondary schools in the 1970s. Since then, many Christian organizations had joined force to evangelize the unreached. Currently, a great majority of the churches are either evangelical or charismatic. The high concentration of Christians among the students, in particular, should not be seen as an accident. Apart from the language and culture factors, the rapid growth among the students is a direct result of evangelistic efforts. Organizations such as Campus Crusade for Christ, Varsity Christian Fellowship (IFES), Navigators, all maintain strong presence in the universities and polytechnics. Meanwhile, Youth for Christ, together with Boys Brigade, continues to work among the high school students. Another notable organization is Eagles Evangelism, which reaches out to the young adults through lunch-time seminars and evangelistic concerts.

The evangelistic zeal on campus has not stayed within the campus; rather, it was passed on to the local churches. Evangelistic meetings can now be seen in almost every church. Evangelism often assumes a high priority among other church activities, though in practice, outreach efforts are usually dampened by a lack of eagerness among the congregations. Nevertheless, Christian churches continue to attract unbelievers. Charismatic churches are particularly successful in recent years. One good example is the Faith Community Baptist Church, which first broke away from its traditional Baptist mother church about ten years ago. To date, their total memberships have increased to more than 6,000. Many young people are attracted to its lively, contemporary style of worship, dynamic preaching and close-knit cell group setting. In addition, as a means of reaching out, they also maintain a comprehensive network of social services, ranging from day-care centers to workshops for the mentally-retarded. This holistic approach to evangelization has become more and more popular among the churches.


Christian Reflection and Critique

4.1        Structure of Plausibility

The matter of "plausibility" comes into picture when we realize that "knowledge does not occur in the, abstract, but is rooted in particular social settings." This is the notion of "plausibility structures" developed by Peter Berger. A biblical model of such can be drawn from John 13:34-35, where Jesus says, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Here we see a "structure of plausibility" that is based on love for one another. The fulfillment of Jesus' command leads to a distinct social structure. And those who come into encounter with this structure will be compelled to see the reality of the Christian faith, and thus turn themselves to God. This is the biblical form of plausibility.

In the case of Singapore, the success of evangelism has been largely enhanced by some distinct "structures of plausibility" --- settings that are conducive for the reception of Christian faith. Recall the two positive factors that are closely linked to the growth of Christianity in Singapore. The successful induction of the Western culture and the employment of English language in almost every sphere of life have no doubt opened the pathway for Christianity. The Christian faith was therefore put in a favorable position from the very outset. This, together with its more convincing style of preaching, forms a grand "macro-structure of plausibility" for Christianity.

Meanwhile, in evangelizing the younger generation, various methodologies and programs are put to use. One catchword that constantly appears in evangelistic outreach is "effectiveness". There is an emphasis on finding the "most effective means" to evangelize one particular group of people. For instance, in the university campus, fellowship programs are designed to attract and retain young, Western-inclined unbelievers. Efforts are made to correct the notion that "Christianity is boring." Songs and music are to be contemporary and appealing. Campus Christian fellowship, apart from its spiritual dimension, is given a social role of nurturing friendships between the believers and unbelievers. The friendships, as they mature, become a ground for the unbelievers to experience the Christian faith more concretely and personally. Thus they help to create strong plausibility for the gospel. In other words, they form a distinct "micro-structure of plausibility".

The success of charismatic churches in Singapore again is no less credited to their respective "plausibility structures". Recall the case of Faith Community Baptist Church. The intimate setting of the cell groups provides listening ears to the empty souls; the contemporary worship and dynamic preaching enable both emotional release and uplift. Finally, the elements of tongues, healing, miracles, demon-deliverance add a sense of power and authenticity to the Christian faith in a world of loss and confusion. All these elements have made Christianity attractive and plausible. Again, they form a very powerful "micro-structure of plausibility". In fact, if we are to study the works of other organizations, such as Youth for Christ and Boys Brigade, we shall be able to see the same principle at work.

As we have mentioned earlier, the "structure of plausibility" does have its biblical warrant. However, we must also be conscious its pitfalls. The fact is that what is plausible may not necessarily be true. The function of a "plausibility structure" is to eliminate barriers between the truth and the unbelievers. When all have been done, the unbelievers still have to be confronted by the gospel itself. There is no other substitute. The subtle danger is that in our preoccupation with "effectiveness", we tend to confuse the gospel with the "structure of plausibility", i.e. to interchange the Christian truth with what is plausible. Thus the true gospel is often made hidden behind the human structure.

On this, we have to honestly ask: Are the so-called "believers" genuine converts in response to the gospel? Or are they only those who have come and believed because of the "miraculous signs", and to whom Jesus would not entrust Himself (John 2:23-24)? In our attempt to contextualize, have we lost sight of the true gospel? These are some serious questions we must answer.

One alarming discovery in a survey some years ago is that Protestants were found to be the most likely religious believers to convert to "no religion". A study conducted in mid-1980s indicates that as many as one-third of the Protestant converts in Singapore did not remain as Christians. Other reports have also indicated high drop-out rate among the young converts as they get married and enter into the materialistic world. On the opposite end, we have noticed a "revival" among the Buddhists since late 1980s. Some Buddhist organizations have studied the Christian evangelistic model, and intelligently modified their existing religious activities in order to attract more converts. Now, they not only have a more systematic approach towards their religion, they also introduce talks, seminars, "Sunday-School" classes, and hymns etc. The success story of the Buddhist "structure of plausibility" should probe us to wonder whether the growth of Christianity is the pure result of the power of the gospel, or simply a matter of "structure of plausibility"? Again, if the people are truly converted, why are so many returning back to the world?

4.2         Christian Conversion

In close relation to what we have just discussed, we now turn our attention to the way the gospel is preached in Singapore. The first thing to notice is the high priority evangelism occupies in the churches and Christian organizations in general. More recently, this evangelistic zeal has been reinforced by the Church Growth Movement coming from the West, and the rise of charismatic churches locally. There is also a strong emphasis on personal evangelism. Members of churches and Christian students are often enrolled in short evangelism seminars that introduce "techniques" of witnessing to their families, relatives, colleagues and friends. In the university setting, the Four Spiritual Laws and the Gospel Bridge, or other similar models, are often employed. These materials are used both in friendship-based evangelism as well as street evangelism. For those who are working in the secular world, a more frequent practice is to invite interested unbelievers to Sunday worship or cell group.

Turning first to the students, campus evangelism has maintained it aggressive approach. Concerning the materials used, such as the Four Spiritual Laws, some theologians have argued that the message is too narrow and lacks theological content. The "receive Christ" or "decision for Christ" connotation is sometimes criticized as "too rash, too anti-intellectual, too simplistic." Yet, following the tradition of Campus Crusade in the U.S., the mentality of Singaporean Christians is still very much "numbers count". This mentality is in conjunction with the evangelism catchword "effectiveness" we mentioned earlier. While there may be many converts, few are those who truly sustain. Meanwhile, many who had "made decision for Christ" but later returned to the world continue to profess as Christians. Naturally, they become parts of the misguided religious statistics.

Perhaps, what is truly alarming has yet been made clear. To put it plainly, there is a naive conception that "the reciting of sinners' prayer implies salvation". There is a strong flavor of Arminian thinking behind the whole evangelistic approach. The implicit belief among many Christians is that salvation has been achieved and is now being offered to all. Thus anyone who receives it as a free gift shall be saved. The change of status -- justification -- induced by salvation is permanent and is invoked by faith and repentance, in the form of sinners' prayer. Hence, the most urgent matter of all is to persuade the unbelievers to "receive Jesus as Savior."

It should be noticed that although the Christians in Singapore are mostly well-educated, the discipline of critical thinking is suppressed culturally. There is little doctrinal reflection among Christians. Furthermore, in line with the political and economic culture, the Christian churches focus mostly on spiritual zeal and pragmatic issues. Intellectualism is to be avoided, and cultural criticism is seldom appreciated. The essence of Reformed faith is mostly left untouched even within the Presbyterian churches. While there is a general knowledge of the Bible, in-depth doctrinal understanding has been very lacking among the church leaders and congregation in general.

The direct implication of the above is the engagement of all means in winning converts. Thus it is not unusual to see preachers employing psychological and emotional devices to persuade their audience. In the meantime, the call for repentance is often toned down in order to make the gospel "less offending". This is particularly so in the case of personal evangelism. God is most frequently portrayed as a kind and loving God, while His wrath against the unrighteous is often dealt with superficially. Instead of expounding on man's absolute ethical antithesis against God, the unbeliever is often described as "a nice person, who nevertheless is imperfect, and therefore unable to reach the standards of the perfect God." Such presentation of the gospel is far from the biblical truth. Here is a perfect example of a zeal without knowledge (Proverbs 19:2). While personal evangelism is to be encouraged among all believers, it must also be carefully done. Individuals who do not have sufficient theological understanding tends to be shallow in their gospel presentation. Instead of pointing unbelievers to the biblical Jesus, they often blur the vision of the true gospel. Due to a lack of doctrinal understanding, some gospel essentials are sacrificed in a zeal to win more converts.

Finally, conversion of unbelievers very often involves more than just the preaching of the Word. When an unbeliever comes to a church, he not only learns of the spoken truth proclaimed from the pulpit, but also the unspoken truth proclaimed through deeds of the Christian congregation. Sadly, this unspoken truth oftentimes carries more weight than the spoken truth. Thus, it is not unusual to see genuine seekers turn away from Christian congregations that only "have a form of godliness, but deny its power" (2Timothy 3:5). But worse still, many others come to "faith", when they conclude, not from the Bible but from the Christians around them, that they need not forsake much in becoming Christians. In fact, the "association of Christianity with elite social and political status may have helped attracted some converts." Thus the whole matter of eternal truth is reduced to a rational decision based on some cost-and-benefit analysis.

4.3        Syncretism and Secularization

By syncretism, we mean the penetration of religious elements from other religions into Christianity; and by secularization, we refer to the infiltration of materialism into the Christian faith. In the case of Singapore, syncretism is frequently found in an unholy alliance with secularization. Before we make any critique of the current situation, it needs to be stated that Christians in Singapore are holding firm to the truth that "Jesus is the only way." While due respect is paid to the worshippers of other religions, Christians have not had any hesitation in asserting Christ as the only pathway to salvation. However, on the other hand, it is also true that some minor elements of the traditional Chinese religions have crawled in silently from the backdoor.

One insightful illustration of syncretism and secularization in Singapore is found in a reflection essay written by a Singaporean Christian. Picking up the phrase, "Let every heart prepare Him room", from the popular Christmas hymn Joy to the World, the reflection essay expounds three popular forms of syncretism in Singapore. It begins with the question, "Which room is Christ occupying?"

Storage Room. If you ask what is the most common motivation in becoming a Christian, "assurance of going to heaven" will probably be a good answer. In Singapore, the question of meaning does not play as big of a role as in the West. The government, with its paternalistic style, has from the very beginning defined the goal and meaning for its people. One interesting observation is that as people get more affluent, they tend to become more insecure. Thus they begin to search for security. It is no wonder that the insurance industry in Singapore has multiplied many folds in recent years. There is a high demand for security, security as a commodity. And Christianity comes in as a nice fit. While traditional religions do promise passage to heaven, Christianity, with its strong "structures of plausibility", often looks more convincing. Conversion is seen as an "insurance" for the after-life. Yet once they have accepted Jesus, hence securing their salvation, He is immediately shut up in the storage room.

Kitchen. Another form of syncretism originates from the concept of the Chinese kitchen god. Kitchen god is, in the Chinese belief, the god who provides food and drink for the family, and the god who determines the wealth of the household. There are many among Christians who treat Jesus no other than a Western kitchen god. What they want from Him is health and wealth. As long as things go according to their ways, they will keep on worshipping. Unfortunately, this whole concept of prosperity gospel and exchanging worship for peace and health is totally alien to the Bible.

Washroom. Here is another hideous situation, in which Jesus is offered the washroom. For this type of Christians, they only visit God amidst of urgencies. In a normal day, when things are going well and smooth, they never bother to give Him a knock. But when lives are not going well, they will rush to the washroom and seek help. This popular concept of God can find its root in many Chinese folk religions.

In conclusion, it is obvious that no matter which form of syncretism Christianity takes on, it will be a total distortion of the authentic Christian faith. When those Christians call on the name of Jesus, it is no longer the biblical Jesus that they call upon, but their self-created Jesus. In other words, it is idols not God that they are worshipping. This is in fact a natural development from the compromise, intentionally or unintentionally, made on the gospel essentials in an attempt to convert unbelievers, rather than to confront them with the true gospel.


Defense of Faith

5.1        Belief Behind the Unbelief

Our defense of faith begins with a further investigation of the "system of unbelief". We have seen, in our discussion of Christian conversion in Singapore, that the initial damage to the Christian church comes at the hands of a compromised gospel. Once this defective gospel enters the church, its damage is multiplied and its effects made permanent. For within the body, the virus develops into a contagious disease which quickly spreads throughout the whole church. The misguided evangelistic efforts result in a system of half-truths (which is no truth) and a culture of pretense. Among its many features, there are several characteristics of unbelief that deserve special attention.

First of all, redemption is falsely applied at the point of conversion. Many abuse the doctrine of "salvation by grace by faith" and use it an excuse for their continuous disobedience. They rationalize in their own hearts that since it is by grace through faith that one is saved, the acts of sinning therefore shall in no way jeopardize the assurance of salvation. A true story was told of a church member who committed adultery. When confronted by the pastor, the man replied, "Pastor, don't worry. I am saved by grace through faith!" Perhaps the revolt against the gospel of grace reaches its climax in when a worship leader came up during one Sunday service and prayed, "God, we confess that we have never made you the Lord of our life, yet by grace we were saved." Thus on one hand, they acknowledged their continuous rebellion, on the other hand, they were content to remain in their sinful state. But isn't that exactly what Paul rebukes in Romans 6:1-2, "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?"

Meanwhile, by virtue of a perverted understanding of salvation, a defective doctrine of sanctification becomes necessary. Since the unbelievers' ultimate commitments are never truly challenged at the point of conversion, the call to radical discipleship is left to be answered in the process of sanctification. Self-denial is perceived as the end point rather than the starting point. Thus Christians would begin with an intellectual belief in Christ, which by itself promises salvation; then they proceed slowly and gradually towards becoming disciples of Christ. It is one thing to believe in Christ, and another to follow Him. Discipleship is therefore reduced to an (preferred) option, rather than a firm necessity. Such doctrine demands distorted understanding of many passages dealing with the "cost of discipleship". One popular way of rationalizing is to interpret passages, such as Luke 9:23, as teachings on the demands (and rewards) for those who are called to follow Christ, but not for believers in general.

The false conception of sanctification leads to an inevitable notion of Christian dichotomy --- the distinction between disciples and believers. The basic idea is that there are two distinct classes of Christians: those who are disciples and those who are merely believers. Disciples are those who are devoted and obedient to God's calling. They are faithful workers and therefore shall receive rewards in heaven. Meanwhile, most Christians are unable to rise above the world to seek God's kingdom. They are the so-called carnal Christians, who love the world and their flesh more than God. Yet, though they are disobedient, by grace they shall be saved, for they have received Jesus as their savior (though not as Lord). The only difference between the faithful ones and the unfaithful ones is their heavenly rewards.

The three fallacies mentioned above form the pillars of the "system of unbelief". Since most Christians find the radical discipleship of Jesus to be an absolute impossibility, this false system of doctrines is often welcomed with open arms. Still, as Paul has pointed out in Romans 1:19-21, these men are not without the knowledge of God. They are conscious of the obedience they owe God; yet they nevertheless find it too costly or risky to commit their all. Some have sought to resolve their inner conflicts by leading a upright, moral life, and by participating in church activities. Unlike the West, Singapore society is relatively uncorrupted. Business practices are generally clean and honest, and social behaviors are well-regulated through law and order. This sometimes gives a false impression of Christians' conformity to the will of God. In reality, behind the honest, responsible Christian individual, one often finds a self-seeking, insatiable heart which strays far from God (Matthew 7:6). In any case, moralism and good works are no substitute for full submission to God.

5.2        Disclosure

Disclosure is the process of which we move "onto the ground of an unbelieving person in order to uncover the inner dynamics of his or her worldview." In 3.1, we have surveyed the "system of unbelief". We are now ready to tackle their false arguments with the biblical truth. The "system of unbelief" resembles what Dietrich Bonhoeffer terms as "cheap grace" in his book The Cost of Discipleship, a masterful attack on worldly Christianity. Bonhoeffer writes, "Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian 'conception' of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins." Of such grace, Bonhoeffer remarks, "Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."

According to Bonhoeffer, Luther's rediscovery of grace in all its purity and costliness was distorted by a "subtle and almost imperceptible change of emphasis," and it resulted in "grace at its cheapest price." To Luther, the grace he encountered is the "costly grace" of Jesus Christ. "Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life." Expounding on the story of the Young Rich Ruler, Bonhoeffer affirms that true faith must manifest itself in explicit and exclusive allegiance to the person of Jesus Christ; and only true obedience can verify the faith one claims.

Now, we should see clearly that the issue we encounter in evangelizing Singapore is very similar to that in the story of the Young Rich Ruler. Recall that a typical Christian in Singapore is well-educated and enjoys security and bright prospects for the future. He is armed with every potential to achieve the "Singapore Dream" --- the "5Cs". The (temporal) comfort and (pseudo-) security of the secular world are quietly, but forcefully, lulling him into their allegiance. If this man is to come to Christ, if he is to receive eternal comfort and true security, he too, like the Young Rich Ruler, must be confronted with his ultimate commitments. "When Christ calls a man," says Bonhoeffer, "He bids him come and die." This is not to say that he has to literally give away all he has, but rather that he must be ready to follow Jesus at all cost. The intensity of such struggle is obvious. Since Jesus asserts in Matthew 6:24 that no man can serve two masters, a radical change must take place within the unbeliever. If Jesus is not his Master, He cannot be his Savior either. The man, having been confronted by the truth, must submit himself fully before Christ. But how can such radical conversion be possible? How can any man be saved (Matthew 19:25)? The Singaporean answer is one of "cheap grace", denouncing the necessity of self-denial and the lordship of God. Unfortunately, this is in total conflict with the Bible.

The honest answer to the question of conversion raised is a total impossibility, morally and spiritually. Yet, "[w]ith man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." (Matthew 19:26) Discipleship is never of a man's own choosing. God's saving grace in us begins with regeneration, a radical and all-pervasive change of heart that "negate[s] the past as well as reconstitute[s] for the future". Regeneration is the pure work of God in us; in fact, given the depravity of man, there can be no other way. The outcome, as John Murray describes, is a "whole-souled movement of loving subjection and trust in God... turning to God with the whole heart, soul and strength and mind." The fruitless human pursuit for inner transformation must give way to God's regenerating power. The old life must be abandoned, and the new life must be sought. In the language of C. S. Lewis, "It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad."

Regeneration is the basis for faith and repentance. No one is born again by faith or repentance, rather "we repent and believe because [and only because] we have been regenerated." To muffle the radicality of the gospel confrontation is not to recognize the power of the gospel and to rob God of the glory of His sovereign grace. In short, regeneration begets faith and repentance. And faith is not a mere intellectual assent, but it consists of knowledge, conviction and trust. We are not only to know, but also to be convicted of the truth --- the truth of who we are, as lost and rebellious sinners, and who Christ is, as the holy God, Lord and Savior. And this faith must not "stop short of self-commitment to Christ," i.e. to rely on nothing and no one but Christ alone for our security and salvation. Meanwhile, true faith is inseparable from repentance, for "[s]aving faith is permeated with repentance and repentance is permeated with faith". Repentance is a change of heart and mind and will, and a turning away from sin, specific sins, unto God. To ask for faith in isolation from concrete repentance is to deviate from the gospel.

Still, we need to elaborate more on justification and sanctification. While justification is by faith and faith alone, it is not by "a faith that is alone." As we have said, we cannot isolate faith from the whole application of redemption. Faith arises from regeneration and cannot be separated from repentance. Such faith is not abstract but concrete. Then, concerning sanctification, we must realize that sanctification itself is not the first step in application of redemption. Other steps, such as regeneration, faith and repentance, and justification, are presupposed. Sanctification is therefore the gradual elimination of all sin in the life of the regenerated. The regenerate are in constant conflict with sin, but the unregenerate are complacent to sin. It is one thing to be still fighting against sin, but another to complacently rest in it.

Two more remarks need to be made before we move on. First, many Christians have attempted to gain acceptance from God by engaging in church activities and other good works. They are actually aware of their rebellion against God, and yet they refuse to submit themselves, holding on to their possessions as their ground of security and the false doctrine of "cheap grace" for an assurance of salvation. John Calvin sees this as hideous hypocrisy. "For where they ought to have remained consistently obedient throughout life, they boldly rebel against Him in almost all their deeds, and are zealous to placate Him merely with a few paltry sacrifices... Nay, more, with greater license they sluggishly lie in their duty toward Him by ridiculous acts of expiation. Then while their trust ought to have been place in Him, they neglect Him and rely upon themselves..." It is the kind of religion that centers and relies not on God, but on man; it is in total opposition to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The second remark concerns the Christian dichotomy between disciples and believers mentioned in 5.1. Historically, this misconception can be traced back to the monastic movement during the ancient church. While monasticism began as a living protest against secularized Christianity, the church was "wise" enough to tolerate it, thus relativizing it to be a higher class of Christianity. As a result, the protest against the cheapening of grace was subtly reversed to become its full justification. Again, as seen from the many arguments above, such view is totally contrary to the Bible, and must be rejected with full force.

5.3        Coming Home

We have come to a point where the gospel must be preached afresh in its purity. Although regeneration is a supernatural act that can only take place when God so purposes, it is also God's will that the preaching of the gospel shall be the common context for "new birth". Our foremost responsibility before God therefore is to present the authentic gospel of Jesus Christ to all men faithfully. We have seen that in a modern setting, very often, the unbelievers are rushed into a decision without a full understanding of the gospel content and its implications. Such modern approach, with its preoccupation of efficiency and effectiveness, must be critically re-evaluated. In the meantime, we shall look at one other way of gospel presentation and examine the theological basis for such approach.

The approach I am alluding to actually contains no new elements. Its uniqueness lies in its patience and comprehensiveness. We shall name it the "Grand Narrative" approach. It was first developed by some missionaries from New Tribes Mission. The targets of New Tribes Mission are chiefly tribal peoples who have never heard of the name of Jesus. A true experience was shared some years ago about one missionary who came to a tribe in Papua New Guinea. He told the people that he had brought with him a story about God. Soon, the people got interested in the story and invited him to speak to them. So he began his six-month story-telling program.

Every week, he would come to them and share with them stories from the Old Testament. He began with Genesis, of the Creation, the Fall, Noah, the Tower of Babel etc. Then the next week he would continue with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. So he went on with Exodus, the Ten Commandments, the Golden Calf, the Conquer of Canaan... and all the significant stories in the Old Testament. But he never mentioned the name of Jesus. As days went by, the people got more and more interested. The whole village would listen and they would go on for hours, without feeling tired. Meanwhile, some of them were becoming sorrowful. They began to realize their own sins. They would tell each other that they were all like the Israelites and there was no hope for them, but to wait for God's judgment. Then on the last day of the program, after a full six-month of anticipation, they were told of Jesus, His incarnation, His ministry, His person and His teachings... followed by His rejection, the betrayal and His crucifixion. The people all loved Jesus very much. And when they heard of Judas betraying Jesus, they were very mad at Judas. And when Jesus was crucified to the Cross, the village fell into a grave silence. Their hope was gone... But at last, when Jesus rose from the death, so unexpectedly to this tribal people who had never heard of the gospel story, the whole village burst into shouts and praises. They were singing and dancing, non-stop, for full two hours! And such is the power of the gospel.

The "Grand Narrative" approach contains several distinct features that are missing in the modern evangelistic routine. First of all, such approach acknowledges revelation as a historic, progressive process. According to the basic principles of Biblical Theology, revelation is closely linked to redemption and is itself the interpretation of redemption. In fact, revelation becomes incarnate in history, and the historic process observable in revelation has an organic nature. Like a seed that undergoes a growth process, revelation grows organically along the course of history. Then, in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4), Christ came to us in the climax of the history of revelation and redemption. Modern evangelism often focuses only on the life and work of Christ, without realizing that apart the historical background and contrast of the Old Testament, Christ's life and work will become far less relevant and compelling.

Another special feature of the "Grand Narrative" approach is its presentation of the gospel in the form of a covenant. The repeated emphasis on the covenant relationship (its privileges and responsibilities) between God and the Israelites in the Old Testament leads to the idea of a universal covenant between God and all His creatures. In reality, men God's creatures are in perpetual covenant with God the Creator; they are either covenant-keepers or covenant-breakers. And in responding to the truth, one is in effect turning away from a covenant-breaking community to one of covenant-keeping. This implies a whole-hearted movement, and not simply an intellectual assent to the idea of reconciliation.

Several passages in the New Testament assume similar approach as the "Grand Narrative". The speech of the martyr Stephen in Act 7:1-53 is probably the most detailed recounting of the history of Israel in one single incident. Then in Acts 13:16-48, we see Paul appeal to the Jews of God's redemptive plan and their continuous rebellion. But perhaps the best support for the "Grand Narrative" approach comes from Peter's address at Pentecost in Acts 2:13-41. On the surface, it may appear that Peter did not employ the same approach as Stephen and Paul. However, if we are to look carefully into his message, we shall notice that the Old Testament background is essential to his message. Not only did he quote Joel and Psalms, his declaration of Jesus as Messiah would have no meaning apart from the Old Testament.

Of course, in our context, it does not seem very practical to give a six-month sermon. Granting this, it is nevertheless crucial for us to proclaim every essential element. A good proclamation of gospel therefore should include a recounting of the redemptive history from Creation, the Fall, to the call of Abraham and Israel, to the rebellion of Israel, the promise of the New Covenant and eventually to Christ. In his book A Preacher's Portrait, John Stott suggests that our simplest outline of the gospel should include: (1) "A proclamation of the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus, seen in the fulfillment of prophecy;" (2) "The resultant evaluation of Jesus as both Lord and Christ;" and (3) "A summons to repent and receive forgiveness of sins." It also needs to notice that "the early apostolic kerygma was full of solid didache." This implies that unbelievers are not to be rushed into decision by shallow messages. Rather, they must all be properly taught of the Christian truth before they are called to respond.

To sum up, we must realize that our evangelistic efforts today is founded solely on the Bible. And in this Bible that we receive from Him, we find both the Old and the New Testaments. If God has chosen to reveal to us progressively and through history, we must acknowledge His wisdom and apply His way of revelation in practice. The Old Testament is not only meant to be used for the teaching of believers, it is also a part of the gospel message. In fact, it is impossible to understand gospel verses, such as John 1:17; 3:14-15, without first knowing their Old Testament background. The key elements of the redemptive history therefore must be presented and understood. Before the conviction of sin can come, the Word of God must be allowed to speak to the unbelievers in its entirety. Then they shall be "cut to the heart" and cry out "what shall we do?" (Acts 2:37) And then true blessings will descend from above.



To conclude, the objective of this paper is not to provide the model for doing apologetics in Singapore. Rather, it aims to outline a basic framework for doing apologetics under the prevailing spiritual culture of the affluent East. I have deliberately chosen the title The Gospel in the Affluent East, though our study is confined to Singapore. The rationale is that while historical and cultural settings may differ, there are nevertheless many shared elements among the fast-growing economies of the East. Thus the work that we have done here may prove to be useful under other contexts.

Many years ago, an American clergyman, Rev. Malcolm Boyd, was asked of the greatest challenge confronting American Protestantism. His answer was "To find out, I suppose, what Christianity is... really." While Christianity in Singapore has but a brief history, Christians are already beginning to lose sight of what the Christian faith truly means. Who indeed is this Jesus? And who is He to us? Proverbs 19:2 says, "It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way." Sadly, the evangelistic fervor in Singapore seems to have fallen into the very trap we are warned against.

One practical step to mend the current situation is to introduce systematic studies of doctrines at the Adult Sunday School level. The idea is to make use of the existing church structures to impart Christians with basic, but nevertheless authentic, doctrinal knowledge. An one-year program with three-month periods each devoted to Doctrine of God, Doctrine of Man, Doctrine of Christ, and Doctrine of Holy Spirit can be considered as a blue-print. Our hope is that, through these doctrinal studies, the pure gospel of grace of Jesus Christ will be rediscovered and understood in a fresh manner. Subsequently, Christians are confronted to rethink and ponder upon the claims of Christ as both their Lord and Savior.

On the other hand, seminaries in the East are often critical of the intellectualism of their counterparts in the West. In their attempt to avoid the intellectual pitfalls, vigorous doctrinal teachings have often been relegated to the background. In a church culture where practical pastoral skills are preferred to intellectual abilities and biblical exposition, there is less and less space for critical Christian thinkers. From this chasm, the Christians must rise. The awakening must come. Beginning from seminary students, pastors and church leaders, all must come to know afresh the gospel of Jesus Christ, and become true partakers and defenders of faith.

Finally, we need to be reminded that "[t]he best apologetics is not a series of dry methods, but is rather a wise discernment ensuring the kind of flexibility appropriate to working with a person's multidimensional spiritual life." The framework we have developed here, with its reflection, critique and suggested approach, must be carefully applied with sensitivity and compassion. There was never a gold age nor an ideal situation when and where the preaching of the gospel was easier. Yet our time and place have always presented us with a special opportunity. This is so because we do not preach ourselves, but the gospel of Jesus Christ (2Corinthians 4:5), which was, is, and will continue to be the power of God unto salvation (1Corinthians 1:18).


Back to Antioch's Home Page
Created: 19 August 1997 ______ Last updated: 19 August 1997